Although this is a fictional book, it’s almost a biography of the writer, E M Forster (perhaps most famous for his novel ‘A passage to India’).
Drawing on Forster’s own writing, including his personal diaries, as well as biographies written by other authors, Damon Galgut has produced a beautifully written story of Forster’s triumphs and tragedies.
Novels fall into various categories, one of which is literary fiction. It’s not always easy to know what does and doesn’t count as literary fiction, but it struck me as I read this book that it fitted easily into this genre. There was something refined and stately about the writing style, and the precision with which the book had been crafted.
Edward Morgan Forster was born in 1879 and grew up in London, later attending Cambridge University. During most of his life, homosexuality was illegal in Britain. From an early age Forster knew he wasn’t attracted to women, but he found it impossible to establish a fulfilling relationship with a man. Damon Galgut’s book introduces this issue in the first chapter and much of the story relates to this aspect of Forster’s character.
Having read ‘A passage to India’ many years ago, and enjoyed film versions of ‘Howard’s End’ and ‘A room with a view’ (based on novels by E M Forster), I was interested to learn more about the writer behind the tales. I had no idea his life had been so varied, or so challenging from a personal perspective. Damon Galgut tells Forster’s story sympathetically but without sentimentalising the facts. The writing is fluid and finely honed, and gave me a vivid sense of the complicated person E M Forster must have been.
Finishing this book left me feeling I would like to re-read ‘A passage to India’, which I suspect will take on a new dimension now that I know how Forster struggled to complete the story. It was the last, and most celebrated, novel he published, although he went on to write plays, short stories and non-fiction. I would also be interested to read some of Damon Galgut’s other novels, two of which were shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.
We had quite a bit of snow yesterday morning, but in the afternoon the sun came out and brightened things up. I expect the birds enjoy a bit of winter warmth on their feathers, just as humans appreciate it against the skin.
Yesterday was a glorious day in sunny Perthshire, cold and crisp with a clear blue sky. While out for a health-giving walk, I passed a curiously twisted tree. I don’t suppose I’d have noticed it if it had been covered in leaves, but at this time of year its pale bark and empty branches stood out against the background field.
I remember watching and very much enjoying the travel documentary series, ‘Pole to Pole’, on television many years ago. While browsing in a second-hand shop recently I found a copy of the book that accompanied the series, for the remarkable price of 25 new pence. I was more than happy to hand over my pennies for this gem of a publication.
As with other books accompanying Michael Palin’s television travel documentaries, this one is laid out in a diary format, detailed by day number rather than date.
The original idea for the programme was to travel from the north pole to the south pole, along the 30 degree East line of longitude. Using this line as a guide meant the journey would cover the largest amount of land possible between the two poles. In fact, although the journey did weave west and east of the 30 degree East meridian, it rarely stuck to the line, owing to geography and transport restrictions.
The full journey would take an exhausting 141 days, and began on a Saturday afternoon in the high Arctic. The only feasible way to get to the north pole was by small plane, and filming time was very limited after landing. Unlike the landmass of Antarctica which is thousands of feet thick in places, the Arctic is an ocean covered with only a feet feet of ice. By Michael’s account, landing near the north pole was a fairly nerve-wracking experience, the first of many throughout the trip.
From the north pole he flew to Greenland and on to the Svalbard Islands, before boarding a supply ship for Norway. I particularly enjoyed the section on Svalbard, although I don’t know how I would cope with sleeping on the floor of a wooden hut in the middle of an icy wasteland with nothing but the snow outside to wash in. This is the joy of armchair travel: imagining the horrors of different environments without actually having to endure them.
South of northern Europe, the journey took him through the old USSR which, in the early 1990s was going through a period of enormous political changes. I remember the Gorbachev era (I was in my late teens then) and was interested to read Michael Palin’s notes and thoughts on how Russia was changing.
After leaving the USSR, and travelling south through Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, Michael and his film crew arrived – on day 52 – in Africa. His first port of call was Egypt, another section of the book that particularly captured my imagination. His descriptions of Luxor and Aswan transported me to the heat and mystery of the Nile valley, an area I felt perfectly content to experience from the the comfort of my own home.
Africa produced some of the most challenging and memorable parts of the whole journey, from some seriously unsanitary conditions to the incredible wildlife, beautiful scenery and diverse peoples and cultures he encountered. While travelling through Africa, as he’d done in the USSR, Michael kept abreast of local politics. Some of the names of political leaders he mentioned rang bells with me, but others I had never heard of and it struck me how little I know about many of the African countries.
The original plan for the trip involved joining a survey vessel sailing out of Cape Town to the Antarctic, but some time before arriving in South Africa the team learned there were no spaces available for them on the ship. There being very few ways of getting to Antarctica, and no alternative ships they could join, they had to rethink their plans. They had two options: go way off the 30 degree meridian by flying to South America and into Antarctica from there, or fail to complete their epic journey to the south pole. The latter was unthinkable after the 130 days of travel they’d already undergone since leaving the north pole, so South America it had to be. Even when they reached Santiago in Chile, they were still at 33 degrees South, the same latitude as Cape Town in South Africa. It was, to coin a phrase, a long way round for a short cut.
On day 138, they finally arrived in Antarctica. Two days later, they flew into the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, run by the United States National Science Foundation and housed under a 150-foot wide geodesic dome. It must have been a bizarre experience, to have travelled all that way through so many different countries and climates and arrive at the south pole to find a little bit of America built into the ice. It was made clear to the team that although they were welcome at the base, the US National Science Foundation were unable to supply material assistance to visitors. The poor travellers were invited in for coffee, but taunted with the smell of hamburgers and chips from the canteen. It was perhaps understandable not to have been offered food, given how difficult and costly it must be to get supplies into such a remote place, but I felt sorry for Michael and his crew having to resist such temptations after such a long and enervating journey.
The book ends with Michael and his team standing together at the geographic south pole, the position marked by a small bronze post stuck into the ice. I was left wondering what it must have felt like to stand there at the pole after completing such a mammoth trip, travelling all the way from the frozen north to the frozen south, through some of the hottest countries on Earth. Thanks to Michael Palin’s vivid descriptions, I felt I’d been through some remarkable experiences while reading this book. I take my hat off to him.
The knobbly beast shown below is a dark chocolate and raspberry scone from the Little Bakery in South Queensferry. I’ve enjoyed several of these treats over the past few months, and recently tried making them at home. Alas, mine were nowhere near as good as the Little Bakery’s. I don’t know what their secret is but their scones are sublime.
Trinity North Church in Kelso was designed by John Starforth and built in the 1880s. It’s a magnificent building that has sadly fallen into disrepair. Now in urgent need of upgrading, it’s on the market for offers over £75,000. Refurbishing it in any way would be extremely costly and no doubt subject to many regulations since it’s a listed building, but I hope some enterprising person saves it from demolition. It even has its own gargoyles.